The Kremlin Magician |  In Putin’s Bubble

The Kremlin Magician | In Putin’s Bubble

What is on Vladimir Putin’s mind? This is a question many of us have been asking since Russia invaded Ukraine. In a superb first novel that has been on everyone’s lips since its publication, an Italian political scientist offers us some keys to better understanding the dictator.

Posted at 9:00 am

Split

Nathalie Collard

Nathalie Collard The press

An atypical author

Giuliano da Empoli is not a novelist, he is a political scientist. He was advisor to the President of the Italian Council, Matteo Renzi, and cultural manager of the city of Florence. Today he teaches at Science Po in Paris and heads the Italian think tank Volta. More used to political science conferences than literary salons, Giuliano da Empoli has published several notable essays. Let’s assume he’s the Italian equivalent of a John Parisella. This time Giuliano da Empoli has chosen fiction to tell us about Russia. His inspiration? Vladislav Surkov, the ideologue behind Putin’s rise to power.

The Kremlin Magician In Poutines Bubble

PHOTO ALEXANDER NEMENOV, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVE

Vladislav Surkov in 2010

A golden character

This Vladislav Surkov is more than a political adviser or a businessman. He’s a “character,” a bit like Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov. His professional career is atypical: After studying acting, he was head of public relations at a Russian television station. He also wrote songs for the goth rock band Agata Kristi and published a novel under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky. But if the story kept his name, it’s because of his position as an adviser to President Putin and in charge of the Ukraine files. Said to be cunning and manipulative, we refer to him as the “Russian Machiavelli” or “Putin’s Rasputin”. Despite his successes as a fine strategist, he was “thanked” in February 2021. It was this character with a colorful life that inspired Giuliano da Empoli to imagine Vadim Baranov, the narrator of his novel looking back on his “Putin years”.

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PHOTO MIKHAIL METZEL, Associated Press Archive

Vladimir Putin last May

Knives fly low

As in the court of a king, the intrigues multiply in the entourage of Putin, nicknamed “the Tsar” by the narrator. The latter recounts how he orchestrated Putin’s reign as a spectacle. Think of Wag the Dog, that film that told how picture makers fabricated a war in Albania to distract public opinion from a scandal surrounding the American president. Baranov’s approach is even more frontal, aiming to make Putin an untouchable and feared leader. The idea: create chaos in order to govern better. Reveling in the narrator’s observations of the wildlife that grows around Putin, one shudders to discover his brutal and vicious methods. This superbly written novel allows us to better understand the power scenes and Russian society. From the inside we experience the war in Chechnya, the invasion of Ukraine and the Olympic Games in Sochi. But we also infiltrate social gatherings where oligarchs, supermodels and politicians stand shoulder to shoulder. For readers who don’t necessarily read Foreign Affairs, it’s a read that’s not only enjoyable, but also allows for a better understanding of Vladimir Putin.

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PHOTO SUPPLIED BY GALLIMARD

Giuliano da Empoli

Fiction, a lucky choice

The author repeated it in an interview, he is not a novelist, and Le mage du Kremlin may be his only novel. It would be a pity, because he has an elegant and concise pen. And by going through fiction, the Italian political scientist can afford to dig deeper into the psyches of his characters. We also feel all his political experience in describing this universe and how it works. If you are interested in contemporary Russia, or if you like political novels in general, you will find it here.

The Kremlin Magician

The Kremlin Magician

Gallimard

288 pages